CANNES, France — “That’s a lot of French.” When these words, uttered with palpable alarm, came out of the mouth of one of the characters in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” the inaugural attraction at the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival, it was hard not to sympathize. Nothing seems to strike fear into hearts like the sight of French hordes, a sentiment that will be familiar to those who have elbowed their way through the masses who congregate near the red carpet hoping to catch sight of Russell, Cate and the other boldface names who make the pilgrimage to the Côte d’Azur for one of cinema’s last glamorous kingdoms.
The Cannes Film Festival, which opened Wednesday, works hard to maintain that luster of glamour, most obviously with the premiere promenade, but also with multiple totems of a bygone era. In a world in which celluloid is giving way to digital, and the theatrical experience diminishes as each release is rushed onto DVD (or VOD), there is something reassuring about the festival’s insistence on exulting cinema’s history even as it makes way for its future. Here, digitally restored old films and high-definition new movies are shown on screens so attentively that the projection alone can seem worth the trip, and usually on screens so large they remind you of when movies were bigger than you, bigger than life.
This year the festival will be working harder with fewer stars. After Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett leave, about the biggest Hollywood stars in the competition will beNaomi Watts and Sean Penn, who play the former C.I.A.operative Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, in“Fair Game,” directed by Doug Liman. And while some of the empty seats in the press screenings can be explained away by plane delays caused by the volcanic ash, it remains painfully clear that the economic crisis has continued to thin the numbers of journalists here.
Celebrities, not surprisingly, are what draw the crowds and the interest of the international news media. Star power also partly explains why “Robin Hood,” an enjoyable old-fashioned spectacle playing out of competition that drew expected critical japes, was slotted into opening night. The first night’s attraction is often one of the weakest features in the program (in 2006 that honor went to “The Da Vinci Code”), though already a Chinese film, “Chongqing Blues,” directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, has made “Robin Hood” look even better. A big-screen soap about a middle-aged man delving, with plodding deliberation, into the mystery of his son’s death, “Chongqing Blues” immediately set alarms that the festival was off to a bad start. Even Mr. Crowe live, on good behavior during the news conference for “Robin Hood,” was more diverting.
Of course complaining about Cannes before it even gets going is a cherished pastime. Last year inspired mass grumbling about the violent, dark selections from heavyweights — Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” was bloody enough to represent the lot — a critical consensus that appears to have been forgotten by those who have already carped that this year’s slate looks comparably lacking in name auteurs. As usual the competition includes the untested and untried, but it seems difficult to find fault with any selection that includes that art-house perennial Mike Leigh, the British filmmaker (returning to Cannes with “Another Year” after “Vera Drake” was turned down for 2004), and one of the world’s most venerated filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami from Iran (here with “Certified Copy” andJuliette Binoche).
Even by the second day Cannes had given festivalgoers two reasons to look forward to the next 10 days: “Tournée” (“On Tour”), directed by the French actor Mathieu Amalric, and “The Strange Case of Angelica,” from the Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira. In “Tournée” Mr. Amalric plays a grubbing impresario who’s shuttling a ramshackle troupe of new burlesque performers on a tour around provincial France. Although the film’s naturalistic dialogue, casual beauty and shifts between onstage and offstage performance initially suggest that Mr. Amalric sought to create a homage to John Cassavetes’s 1976 masterpiece “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” it quickly proves to have its own rhythms and purpose. As the formidably fleshy women peel off their clothes, Mr. Amalric reveals layers of depth.
“The Strange Case of Angelica,” which met with enthusiastic applause after its first press screening on Thursday, is a gift from a filmmaker who, at 101 years old, is nearly as old as cinema itself. Ricardo Trepa stars as Isaac, a photographer and young romantic who one rainy night is summoned to an estate to immortalize a beautiful bride who has suddenly, enigmatically, died. While taking the woman’s picture, something happens — magical, mystical, miraculous — that sends Isaac soaring into the heavens and into deepest despair: he falls in love with the dead woman. Using a Chopin sonata that might have accompanied a silent film, as well as modest special effects, Mr. Oliveira at once looks back to the past, even as his characters meditate on the current economic crisis. I can’t wait to see it again.
It’s a wonder what the competition jury will make of something so delicately and classically filmed. The head of the jury, Tim Burton, is presiding over a mostly European and American group, which convened for a press conference on Wednesday. Its members include the filmmaker Victor Erice (“Spirit of the Beehive”), who modestly nodded as the room erupted in applause after he was introduced; the composer Alexandre Desplat, whose titles include “A Prophet,” from the 2009 Cannes festival; and Alberto Barbera, the director of the National Museum of Cinema in Italy. Rounding out the jury are two other directors (Emmanuel Carrère, Shekhar Kapur) and three actors (Giovanna Mezzogiorno,Benicio Del Toro and Kate Beckinsale, who was introduced for her role as Ava Gardner in “Aviator” though not as a warrior in the “Underworld” flicks).
Mr. Burton, wearing tinted glasses and his familiar dark threads, genially fielded most of the questions from journalists from around the world, who asked questions ranging from the modestly thoughtful to the embarrassingly obtuse. When a woman asked Mr. Burton what he thought about the much-reported fact that the main competition includes no female filmmakers and what he thought that said about the state of contemporary cinema, he responded that he didn’t know what the selection process was (few do), so he couldn’t address that. Yet he also volunteered: “For pretty much my whole career, most of the executives that have that power to greenlight movies, I’d say at least half of them have been women. I mean, they run the studios. So I’m not quite sure what the dynamic of that is,” adding, “It is interesting.”
Mr. Burton was a little less adept when another journalist asked about the directors Jafar Panahi, who’s under arrest in Iran for his political views, and Roman Polanski, who remains under house arrest in Switzerland. (Mr. Panahi had been invited to sit on the jury.) “What’s the jury’s position on these people?” the journalist asked. “Would you like them to be released?”
Mr. Burton said: “Well, yeah. I mean, yes, of course.” He added that “all of us are of course completely for freedom of expression, and we fight that every day, we fight that in our lives.”
A new petition supporting Mr. Polanski’s release and principally signed by French filmmakers, including Agnès Varda and Olivier Assayas, both of whom are in attendance, has been coordinated by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
It’s doubtful that this will be the last word on l’affaire Polanski.